Reconstructing Obama's Columbia Transcript

Jason Kissner recently questioned President Obama's whereabouts in spring 1982, and also discussed in passing some of the courses Obama took while at Columbia. In response, I would like to try my hand at reconstructing the Columbia part of Obama's college transcript based on the published record and my own knowledge of Columbia's requirements as an '84 graduate of the college. This reconstruction may be of interest to those who are curious about this part of Obama's undergraduate education, and it may also shed light on where Obama must have been in spring 1982.

Columbia College is well known for its rigorous core curriculum. Students must not only study masterpieces of literature, philosophy, music, and art, but also take courses in science, a foreign language, and even physical education. These requirements add up to a total of 48 credit hours. Based on a typical student load of 16 credit hours per semester, a student would need to spend three semesters taking nothing but core courses in order to complete the requirement. (In practice, students typically take most of these courses in the first two years of study, perhaps getting to a few of them over the course of the next two years.) As will be seen below, as a transfer student with only two years to complete the core requirements, most of Obama's coursework must have been devoted to taking courses in the core.

The Political Science major at Columbia requires 21 credit hours in Political Science plus two 4-credit hour seminar classes. A maximum of 12 credit hours in Political Science are accepted from transfer students, and since Obama is on record as having taken a lot of Political Science at Occidental, it is reasonable to assume that he received the maximum amount of transfer credit. Obama thus would only have needed to take three Political Science classes at Columbia, in addition to the two required seminars, in order to graduate as a Political Science major.
Finally, a student needs 124 credit hours to graduate from Columbia with a B.A. If my guess is correct that Obama would have taken 70 credit hours in his four semesters at Columbia, Columbia must have accepted a total of 54 credit hours from Occidental (including the 12 credit hours in Political Science).

As one reconstructs Obama's Columbia transcript, perhaps the most striking thing is how few Political Science classes Obama must have taken while studying there. In addition to required classes in the core and in Political Science, the published record of Obama's coursework (based on recollections from former classmates and professors), indicates that he took an English class, a class in Comparative Literature, and a Sociology class. As will be seen below, this does not leave room for much more than the minimum requirement of three additional classes in Political Science plus the two seminars.

I made several assumptions as I reconstructed the transcript. First, I assume that Obama must have taken the maximum four semesters of a foreign language, in his case Spanish. Columbia required me to take all four semesters of the language requirement, even though I had taken a decent amount of French before I got there. Obama has admitted that he does not speak any foreign languages, so I am assuming that he did not place out of the requirement. Second, I assume that Obama took between 16-19 credit hours per semester. This would be a typical and reasonably heavy load for a motivated student, and Obama is described as having been serious about his studies. He is also remembered as playing plenty of pickup basketball and soccer, attending student group meetings, and spending time at local hangouts, so I do not assume that he took more courses than that. Classes that Obama must have taken as requirements, but for which there is no written record, are placed in brackets. Where there is a written record, I indicate the sources in parentheses or by hyperlink. Finally, where there is no written record of when Obama took a certain required course, I placed it where it made most sense to me based on my own experience at Columbia.

A few concluding thoughts. I was in one of the classes that Obama took at Columbia, the course in Modern Fiction with Edward Said. It is worth noting that my recollection of that class does not square with some of the details recounted by Obama's friend and roommate Phil Boerner in Maraniss (449-450) and elsewhere. It is true that the class was held in a large lecture hall, without much opportunity for interaction with Said, and that Said never spoke in class about his political views. But Said's lectures in this course were not devoted to discussions about literary theory, as Boerner claims: "We didn't have a good reaction to the class. Said seemed to be really into literary theory. And I'm more into, and Obama, too, into judging works by themselves and not getting caught up in various feminist-leftist-whatever interpretations. And Said seemed to be really into that" (Maraniss, 449). Very much to the contrary, Said's lectures (as I recall) were devoted to a careful analysis of the texts we were studying, without any reference to literary theory that I can recall. When Said lectured about Conrad's Nostromo, he dwelled on the meaning of the cracks in a vase. When he lectured on Kafka's Metamorphosis, he explained that the word that Kafka uses was the same word used in the gospels to describe Christ's transfiguration.

 

DESCRIPTIVE TITLES               

COURSES

POINTS

GRADES

 

 

 

 

 

AUTUMN TERM 1981

16

 

 

 

 

 

[EURPN LIT-PHILOS MASTRPIECS I]

HUMANITIES

4.0

?

ELEMENTARY COURSE I               

SPANISH

4.0 (Maraniss, 433)

?

[PHYSICAL EDUCATN ACTIVITIES I]

PHYS ED

1.0

P

[A SCIENCE CLASS]

SCIENCE DEPT

4.0

?

[A POL SCI CLASS]               

POL SCI

3.0

?

 

 

 

 

 

SPRING TERM 1982

19

 

 

 

 

 

[EURPN LIT-PHILOS MASTRPIECS II]

HUMANITIES

4.0

?

[ELEMENTARY COURSE II]

SPANISH

4.0

?

[PHYSICAL EDUCATN ACTIVITIES I]

PHYS ED

1.0

?

[A SCIENCE CLASS]

SCIENCE DEPT

4.0

?

[MASTERPIECES OF THE FINE ARTS]

HUMANITIES

3.0

?

[A POL SCI CLASS]

POL SCI

3.0

?

 

 

 

 

 

AUTUMN TERM 1982

18

Jason Kissner recently questioned President Obama's whereabouts in spring 1982, and also discussed in passing some of the courses Obama took while at Columbia. In response, I would like to try my hand at reconstructing the Columbia part of Obama's college transcript based on the published record and my own knowledge of Columbia's requirements as an '84 graduate of the college. This reconstruction may be of interest to those who are curious about this part of Obama's undergraduate education, and it may also shed light on where Obama must have been in spring 1982.

Columbia College is well known for its rigorous core curriculum. Students must not only study masterpieces of literature, philosophy, music, and art, but also take courses in science, a foreign language, and even physical education. These requirements add up to a total of 48 credit hours. Based on a typical student load of 16 credit hours per semester, a student would need to spend three semesters taking nothing but core courses in order to complete the requirement. (In practice, students typically take most of these courses in the first two years of study, perhaps getting to a few of them over the course of the next two years.) As will be seen below, as a transfer student with only two years to complete the core requirements, most of Obama's coursework must have been devoted to taking courses in the core.

The Political Science major at Columbia requires 21 credit hours in Political Science plus two 4-credit hour seminar classes. A maximum of 12 credit hours in Political Science are accepted from transfer students, and since Obama is on record as having taken a lot of Political Science at Occidental, it is reasonable to assume that he received the maximum amount of transfer credit. Obama thus would only have needed to take three Political Science classes at Columbia, in addition to the two required seminars, in order to graduate as a Political Science major.
Finally, a student needs 124 credit hours to graduate from Columbia with a B.A. If my guess is correct that Obama would have taken 70 credit hours in his four semesters at Columbia, Columbia must have accepted a total of 54 credit hours from Occidental (including the 12 credit hours in Political Science).

As one reconstructs Obama's Columbia transcript, perhaps the most striking thing is how few Political Science classes Obama must have taken while studying there. In addition to required classes in the core and in Political Science, the published record of Obama's coursework (based on recollections from former classmates and professors), indicates that he took an English class, a class in Comparative Literature, and a Sociology class. As will be seen below, this does not leave room for much more than the minimum requirement of three additional classes in Political Science plus the two seminars.

I made several assumptions as I reconstructed the transcript. First, I assume that Obama must have taken the maximum four semesters of a foreign language, in his case Spanish. Columbia required me to take all four semesters of the language requirement, even though I had taken a decent amount of French before I got there. Obama has admitted that he does not speak any foreign languages, so I am assuming that he did not place out of the requirement. Second, I assume that Obama took between 16-19 credit hours per semester. This would be a typical and reasonably heavy load for a motivated student, and Obama is described as having been serious about his studies. He is also remembered as playing plenty of pickup basketball and soccer, attending student group meetings, and spending time at local hangouts, so I do not assume that he took more courses than that. Classes that Obama must have taken as requirements, but for which there is no written record, are placed in brackets. Where there is a written record, I indicate the sources in parentheses or by hyperlink. Finally, where there is no written record of when Obama took a certain required course, I placed it where it made most sense to me based on my own experience at Columbia.

A few concluding thoughts. I was in one of the classes that Obama took at Columbia, the course in Modern Fiction with Edward Said. It is worth noting that my recollection of that class does not square with some of the details recounted by Obama's friend and roommate Phil Boerner in Maraniss (449-450) and elsewhere. It is true that the class was held in a large lecture hall, without much opportunity for interaction with Said, and that Said never spoke in class about his political views. But Said's lectures in this course were not devoted to discussions about literary theory, as Boerner claims: "We didn't have a good reaction to the class. Said seemed to be really into literary theory. And I'm more into, and Obama, too, into judging works by themselves and not getting caught up in various feminist-leftist-whatever interpretations. And Said seemed to be really into that" (Maraniss, 449). Very much to the contrary, Said's lectures (as I recall) were devoted to a careful analysis of the texts we were studying, without any reference to literary theory that I can recall. When Said lectured about Conrad's Nostromo, he dwelled on the meaning of the cracks in a vase. When he lectured on Kafka's Metamorphosis, he explained that the word that Kafka uses was the same word used in the gospels to describe Christ's transfiguration.

 

DESCRIPTIVE TITLES               

COURSES

POINTS

GRADES

 

 

 

 

 

AUTUMN TERM 1981

16

 

 

 

 

 

[EURPN LIT-PHILOS MASTRPIECS I]

HUMANITIES

4.0

?

ELEMENTARY COURSE I               

SPANISH

4.0 (Maraniss, 433)

?

[PHYSICAL EDUCATN ACTIVITIES I]

PHYS ED

1.0

P

[A SCIENCE CLASS]

SCIENCE DEPT

4.0

?

[A POL SCI CLASS]               

POL SCI

3.0

?

 

 

 

 

 

SPRING TERM 1982

19

 

 

 

 

 

[EURPN LIT-PHILOS MASTRPIECS II]

HUMANITIES

4.0

?

[ELEMENTARY COURSE II]

SPANISH

4.0

?

[PHYSICAL EDUCATN ACTIVITIES I]

PHYS ED

1.0

?

[A SCIENCE CLASS]

SCIENCE DEPT

4.0

?

[MASTERPIECES OF THE FINE ARTS]

HUMANITIES

3.0

?

[A POL SCI CLASS]

POL SCI

3.0

?

 

 

 

 

 

AUTUMN TERM 1982

18

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